Overhead, the clouds sagged grey. Rain was not far away, but for now the air was dry. We were holding our breath, binoculars frozen in mid-air – waiting, watching, hoping – when, across the toasted grass and gorse of Exmoor’s golden wolds, the flamed shadow of a stag appeared.
Sunday’s Red Stag Rut
This was my second day with Andrew Turner of Red Stag Safaris. We’d started early – he picked me up at 6:30am from The Luttrell Arms in Dunster, where I was staying for a 2-night Red Stag Safari package. And then we’d collected five others.
Today, was stag rut day, and the up-with-the-lark start was to give us a better chance of seeing one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
A stag rut, in case you don’t know, is when male Red Stags are crazed with testosterone and ready to mate. In a display of strength and virility, they bellow like bulls and clash antlers (or horns as the folk of Exmoor call them) with any other majestic gladiator who is foolhardy enough to chase their females. It’s quite something – and I was keen to see it.
Our first stop was a special spot on Dunkery Hill, known only to Andrew.
As the light roused the blue-grey morning, we trudged through red Exmoor mud, chatting quietly about our weekends, before Andrew raised a gloved hand to tell us we had arrived.
Our eyes skipped wildly across the orange hills, searching for movement. Our ears, pricked, listening for a guttural bark or tale-tale clatter of horn-on-horn. But the only sound was the whistle of the wind. The only sight, white dots of sheep amongst the gorse.
So we headed back to the warmth of the Land Rover, still hopeful.
Saturday’s Red Stag Safari
The day before, Andrew had treated Granny and myself to 4 exquisite hours of adventure on Exmoor.
Collecting us in his Land Rover Discovery at 11am, he’d swept us along the rugged Somerset coastline (pausing, helpfully, as the light broke through the cloud so we could take better photos), and up onto the heather moors that he knew like the back of his hand.
Every twist in the road, every ancient landmark, every building Andrew talked about as enthusiastically as if he’d only recently discovered its story for himself. We saw the bronze-aged standing stones and cairns, heard tales of valour from iron-aged legends, and learnt the old customs of the moor.
Andrew’s knowledge of the Exmoor Red Stag was equally as remarkable, and his respect and love for them settled over you like a warm blanket.
During our 4-hour Red Stag Safari, Andrew took us through Exmoor’s ancient woodland, with its twisted trees and thick green light, akin to scenes from a Tolkien novel.
He’d soaked our spirits crashing through Badgworthy Water and the waters that wash Tar Steps (leaving behind a tsunami of excited children and dogs, and surprised mums and dads).
And he’d off-roaded his way into the smoky Doone Valley, reciting the abridged tale of Lorna Doone with as much mirth as ever – whilst Granny hung on for dear life as the Land Rover made its bumpy journey there, almost on its side.
Without doubt, the safari had been the most thrilling way to see Exmoor – and Granny and I arrived back at The Luttrell Arms, cheeks flushed with the wild, open-air beauty of it all.
Exmoor’s Red Stag Shadow
Although the next morning’s stag rut hadn’t yet yielded a ‘battle’, we pressed on, travelling mist-wet roads along steeply sloping combes.
Someone in the back pointed and cried-out, “There!”
And Andrew slowed the Land Rover to a whisper as russet-red shapes moved amid the heather.
Closing the doors softly behind, I climbed from the Land Rover and wobbled my way up a wet bank of shrubs in borrowed wellies.
I saw the hinds (females) first – about six of them; delicate dun beauties with slender shapes, chocolate-brown eyes and black, glistening noses. All were alert to our presence, because we were close, in deer terms – about 100 yards away, which is the nearest you can come to a wild herd, according to Andrew.
Behind the females, a stag.
His antler spread of ‘five a-top’ – colloquialism for the points on a stag’s horns – rose imperial against the grey sky, like dark flames.
I know I wasn’t close to him; I couldn’t see him clearly, but his blaze-red outline alone set my heart into meltdown and my legs to jelly.
We watched as he made a kingly path after his skittish hinds. And then, as quickly as we’d seen him, he was gone. Safely lost amongst the moors once again.
There was no rut to be found that morning. But I didn’t need to see it.
This 2-day Red Stag experience had come splashed with more thrills than I thought possible: the shaggy delights of highland cattle, the blue flash of a kingfisher, hovering birds of prey fighting the wind, the gentle shapes of Exmoor ponies and, of course, through the binoculars that Andrew had kindly provided, the incredible sight of a wild, free and majestic Exmoor Red Stag.
Exmoor, thanks to Red Stag Safaris, had given me more than one reason to return. And I plan to do so, again and again.